Budget & Tax, Health Care

TSET: Don't smoke, get drunk!

September 26, 2017

Trent England

Why does a state agency award grants for “alcohol use prevention” while promoting bars and nightclubs? As OCPA’s Center for Investigative Journalism reported this morning, Oklahoma’s Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET) does this through a program it created and funds called Free The Night.

TSET, created in the Oklahoma Constitution in 2000, is insulated from control by voters or legislators. Its mandates include “research and treatment [of] cancer and other tobacco-related diseases” and “tobacco prevention and cessation programs,” but also catchalls like “Programs …  designed to maintain or improve the health of Oklahomans” and “Programs and services for the benefit of the children of Oklahoma.” Its bank account has grown to over $1.1 billion.

TSET attracts media attention and prods local public policy by giving money to Oklahoma cities and counties. Among the criteria provided by TSET for previous grant awards is “alcohol use prevention.” (Current criteria, which include 10 references to “alcohol” or “drinking,” are here.)

A few years ago, TSET hired a California consulting firm that labels itself “the behavior change agency,” to create Free The Night. In its first two years, TSET spent $653,150 on the program “supporting smokefree bars and clubs.” Here are just a few quotes from TSET’s Free The Night website.

Beyond the hypocrisy of spending state dollars to promote shots, cocktails, and vodka infusions, consider what else those funds could buy. The state share of nursing home costs is $51.45 per day. That means TSET’s Free The Night spending could have covered the state’s share of 12,694 days of nursing home care.

Many Oklahomans are still struggling with the results of collapsed oil prices. Over the last decade, the national recession and then our local recession have caused families and businesses to make hard choices, to cut costs, to do more with less. At the same time, the growth of state government has slowed and some have insisted the only answer is higher taxes. There is simply nothing left, they tell us, to cut and reallocate money to higher priorities. 

With government spending at an all-time high, and examples like TSET, Oklahomans are right to push back. Money-saving reforms abound, along with other ways to balance the books without damaging tax hikes.